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Makoko Floating School: Design Informed by the Needs of the Local

WRITTEN BY: Fey F Olumuyiwa


Located in the Lagos Lagoon, the Makoko community is enclosed by water with little land mass; its residents live in structures typically built on stilts or make shift boats to withstand the constantly changing water levels. Transportation is realised by canoes, and the community is dependent on fishing as its main source of income. The community is greatly underdeveloped with no running water, no electricity, and no proper infrastructure.

The Makoko Floating School project beautifully meets a very essential need for a community, which has long been lacking in the provision of schools for its populous Lagoon residents. Prior to the Makoko Floating school project, there was only one English-speaking primary school for the community, which regularly flooded due to the constantly changing water levels, causing disruptions to education, and also a health and safety hazard for the community.

Makoko Floating School’s creator and architect Kunlé Adeyemi, founder of NLÉ, is a young Nigerian born architect with vast international project experience. He has brought a fresh and inventive approach to solving an urban problem in his native Lagos, Nigeria. The Makoko Floating School is a cutting edge solution to providing a mobile structure for this Lagoon community.

As described by NLÉ;

Makoko Floating School is a prototype structure that addresses physical and social needs in view of the growing challenges of climate change in an urbanising African context. It is a movable 'building' or 'watercraft' currently located in the aquatic community of Makoko in the lagoon heart of Africa's second most populous city: Lagos, Nigeria. It is a floating structure that adapts to the tidal changes and varying water levels, making it invulnerable to flooding and storm surges. It is designed to use renewable energy, to recycle organic waste and to harvest rainwater.

An estimated 100,000 people reside in Makoko in housing units built on stilts. Yet the community has no roads, no land and no formal infrastructure to support its day-to‐day survival. In many ways, Makoko epitomizes the most critical challenges posed by urbanization and climate change in coastal Africa. At the same time, it also inspires possible solutions and alternatives to the invasive culture of land reclamation.

Until now Makoko has been served by one English-speaking primary school, built on uneven reclaimed land, surrounded by constantly changing waters. Like many homes in Makoko, this has rendered the primary school building structurally precarious and susceptible to recurrent flooding. Sadly, the inability of the building to effectively withstand the impact of increased rainfall and flooding has frequently threatened local children's access to their basic need – the opportunity of education.

In response to this and in close collaboration with the Makoko community, NLÉ has developed a prototype floating structure that will serve primarily as a school, whilst being scalable and adaptable for other uses, such as a community hub, health clinic, market, entertainment centre or housing. The prototype's versatile structure is a safe and economical floating triangular frame that allows flexibility for customisation and completion based on specific needs and capacities.

The 220m A-frame or pyramid building is 10m high with a 10m x 10m base. It is an ideal shape for a floating object on water due to its relatively low centre of gravity, which provides stability and balance even in heavy winds. It also has a total capacity to safely support a hundred adults, even in extreme weather conditions.

The building has three levels. The 1st level is an open play area for school breaks and assembly, which also serves as a community space during after hours. The 2nd level is an enclosed space for two to four classrooms, providing enough space for sixty to a hundred pupils. A staircase on the side connects the open play area, the classrooms and a semi enclosed workshop space on the 3rd level.

The simple yet innovative structure adheres to ideal standards of sustainable development with its inclusive technologies for renewable energy, waste reduction, water and sewage treatment as well as the promotion of low-carbon transport. Furthermore a team of eight Makoko based builders constructed it using eco-friendly, locally sourced bamboo and wood procured from a local sawmill.

Construction began in September 2012 with floatation mock-ups and testing. Recycled empty plastic barrels found abundantly in Lagos were used for the building’s buoyancy system, which consists of 16 wooden modules, each containing 16 barrels. The modules were assembled on the water, creating the platform that provides buoyancy for the building and its users. Once this was assembled, construction of the A-frame followed, and was completed by March 2013. Makoko Floating School is now in regular use by the community as a social, cultural and economic centre and will soon welcome its first pupils for use as a primary school.

The project was initiated, designed and built by NLÉ in collaboration with the Makoko Waterfront Community, in Lagos State. The project was initially self-funded by NLÉ and later received research funds from Heinrich Boll Stiftung as well as funds for its construction from the UNDP/Federal Ministry of Environment Africa Adaptation Programme (AAP).

Makoko Floating School is a 'prototype' building structure for NLÉ’s proposed 'Lagos Water Communities Project' and its 'African Water Cities' research project.

Below is a short Q & A profile on the Makoko Floating School, provided by NLÉ. 

How did the project begin and why? 

In May 2011, founder of NLÉ and architect Kunlé Adeyemi visited Makoko and met with members of the community. Inspired by the environment and their way of living and building, he subsequently volunteered to work with them to meet one of their needs: the expansion of a nursery and primary school built on reclaimed land. The school was inadequate, dilapidated and prone to serious flooding that frequently hindered the children's access to education. For Kunlé  Adeyemi and NLÉ, meeting this need was an opportunity to learn and  to contribute. For the Makoko community, it was an opportunity for development.

Adeyemi and NLÉ’s relationship with the community resulted in a holistic, innovative architectural solution as well as a wider urban vision that addresses the challenges of urbanization, climate change, energy, waste, water and food facing many African coastal regions. 

How was the design developed?

The design was developed by the NLÉ team, and the local community building experts with international collaborators on specific technologies. One of the key challenges was finding a solution to building relatively cheap and reliable foundations that could support larger structures in the muddy and weak topography of Makoko area. This issue combined with the changing tidal/water level informed a solution to float the building. A number of design options were considered through several consultations with Makoko community experts and NLÉ's international collaborators. The final preference was a solution based on the use of locally available materials, labour, and vernacular building techniques, combined with relevant global technologies for improvements. This consultation, research & design phase started in June 2011.

How does the design of Makoko Floating School address the issue of climate change and flooding?

Due to the increase in rainfall and rise in sea levels, Makoko’s buildings that are based on fixed stilts, are still prone to occasional flooding although better protected than many buildings on land. Makoko Floating School is built on a floating platform that adapts to the tidal changes and varying water levels, making it invulnerable to flooding and storm surges. 

Why a triangle?

A triangle or pyramid is an ideal shape for a tall floating object on water due to its relatively low centre of gravity, which provides stability and balance even in heavy winds. The triangle is also a fundamental roof form, which is also ideal for the wet and rainy regional climate.

Is the Makoko Floating School fixed or mobile?

The building is currently anchored into a static position. It can also be made mobile and moved via tow. 

How is Makoko Floating School powered and how does it handle waste?

The building/watercraft has an electrical system, which is to be powered through solar energy panels installed onto the roof of the building. A compost/urine diversion toilet adapted to the local practices has been incorporated into the building. The resulting compost will be recycled for vegetation and planting on the structure.

What are the potential risks?

Due to the movable nature of this prototype, there is a minor risk of drift in heavy storms if improperly anchored. There is also a risk of fire spread due to the use of wood. As with risks in any building, both issues have been carefully assessed and mitigated through design. Makoko Floating School employs a combination of temporary posts and retractable steel anchors. A fixed anchoring system is proposed for its long term docking. The wood used is treated to resist rot and fire. 

Who is the school built for?

The school was initially conceived as an extension to the only existing English speaking school on water, Whanyinna Nursery and Primary School, which served mainly the 'Egun' community in Makoko. However its wider community acceptance has brought about a desire for its inclusiveness to serve the entire Makoko/Iwaya Waterfront Community and various ethnic groups. The building will be used both for children's educational needs and for communal use by adults outside of school hours.

Can the project be replicated in other places?

The prototype could be replicated in its form and materials. The structure is a safe and economical floating frame that allows flexibility for variations, customization for different recreational, institutional, commercial and residential uses, and for completion based on specific needs and individual capacities. As a project, NLÉ is developing expertise in his community development process, approach and technology, to enable contextual replication, variations and improvements in other water-based communities. 'Makoko Floating School' is a prototype building/watercraft for the proposed 'Lagos Water Communities Project’, a holistic urban development vision for water-based communities in Lagos, applicable to other waterfront cities and communities in Nigeria and the rest of Africa. NLÉ is also undertaking a comprehensive research project entitled ‘Africa Water Cities’, which explores and documents the realities, challenges and opportunities at the intersection of urbanization and climate change in water‐based cities/communities throughout Africa.

How were the community members carried along?

The project has been carried out with the collaboration of community members, leaders and building experts from inception. NLÉ organizes regular face-to-face meetings with Makoko/Iwaya Waterfront Community representatives for dialogues, design workshops, progress updates and management issues. Representatives of the community are also copied into key project correspondence.

Who are the key project stakeholders?

The current stakeholders are Makoko/Iwaya Waterfront Community, NLÉ, the United Nations Development Programme/Federal Ministry of Environment Africa Adaptation Programme (AAP), Heinrich Boell Foundation and NLÉ's technical collaborators. The extent of the interest of Lagos State government is yet to be confirmed.

Is there a community management team involved?

The Makoko/Iwaya Waterfront Community Secretariat is the current community focal point on the building management.